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The Long Gestation of Cannes-Bound ‘On the Road,’ From Coppola to Salles

The Long Gestation of Cannes-Bound 'On the Road,' From Coppola to Salles

After 44 years, possibly the longest gestation period in cinema history, the film version of Jack Kerouac’s classic Beat novel “On the Road” is finally hitting the big screen. Francis Ford Coppola, then a rising director-screenwriter still in his 20s, bought the film rights to it back in 1968.

The film, directed by Brazilian Walter Salles, was shot in autumn 2010. But it has now been announced that “On the Road” will open in the UK on September 21. A number of other European territories have been confirmed, the first of them being Belgium on May 23.

Intriguingly, given that the film was partly financed by France’s MK2 productions, the French release date has still to be announced. But France and Belgium often go simultaneously with for movie openings – and May 23 is in the second week of the Cannes Film Festival.

This suggests that “On the Road” may have its world premiere in Cannes. Director Salles is a firm favorite on the Croisette; his films “The Motorcycle Diaries” (2004) and “Linha de Passe” (2008) were screened there.

No US distributor has yet been announced for “On the Road.”

Britain’s Sam Riley (“Brighton Rock,” “Control”) and Garrett Hedlund (“Tron: Legacy,” “Friday Night Lights”) take the lead roles: respectively, the would-be writer Sal Paradise and ex-con Dean Moriarty. Both are rootless  drifters, hitch-hiking their way across America, fuelled by sex and alcohol, and living on society’s margins. The two characters were thinly disguised sketches of Kerouac himself and his friend Neal Cassady. When “On The Road” was published in 1957, becoming an overnight publishing sensation, it introduced the phrase “Beat Generation” to denote a new rebelliousness and restlessness.

For more than three decades after Coppola bought the rights, “On the Road” became one of the great elusive unmade movies. In Paris in 1997, Coppola told me he originally wanted to shoot “On The Road” in black-and-white on 16 mm film. “I tried to make it, but couldn’t get the money,” he said. “Now it keeps becoming more important.”

In 2002 it seemed this impasse might be broken. Coppola’s company American Zoetrope announced it would finally make the film. Joel Schumacher was due to direct; Coppola said Schumacher wanted Colin Farrell (who he had directed in “Tigerland”) to play a lead role. Novelist Russell Banks (“The Sweet Hereafter,” “Continental Drift”) was writing a script.

Two years later, at a conference for screenwriters in Monte Carlo, Banks told me the project seemed to be off. “I turned in a script, and Francis liked it very much,” he said. “Then I heard he wasn’t going to do it. It was off and on. I’ll frankly be surprised, though of course greatly pleased if he ever makes it.”

He didn’t. Through his New York publicist, Coppola responded to Banks’s comments by confirming he was “serious” about producing “On The Road.” Yet he conceded no actors or directors were then attached. He admitted: “We’ve learned that what makes “On The Road” great as a read is difficult to transpose to cinema. But we believe we’re closer than ever, and might be in a position to make an announcement as to a film-maker in the not too distant future.” At this time Schumacher, through an associate, said he was “not really” involved with the film.

Jose Rivera, who adapted “The Motorcycle Diaries” for the screen, is credited with adapting Salles’s “On the Road.” He is at least the fifth writer to be attached to the project; Banks was the fourth. First up was Michael Herr, author of “Dispatches,” the acclaimed part-fact, part-fiction work about Vietnam. (He also wrote the narration for Coppola’s films “Apocalypse Now” and “The Rainmaker,” and was a co-writer of Stanley Kubrick’s “Full Metal Jacket.”) The next effort, written several years later, was by novelist-screenwriter Barry Gifford, who worked with David Lynch on “Wild At Heart” (adapted from Gifford’s novel) and “Lost Highway.”

It is known that Coppola and his son Roman worked on a version of “On The Road” in the 1990s, before Banks entered the frame. Each time news of the planned film surfaced, the hot young actors of the day became linked with the leading roles. “I’d get calls from gossip columnists, asking if I knew Johnny Depp was auditioning?” recalled Banks. “Brad Pitt was mentioned. I’d say, what do I know? I’m just the writer.”

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